An essay in happiness gathered over the course of five and a half summers.
- ‘I think you’re afraid to write a story with a happy ending. That’s what I think.’
- One summer, when I was sixteen years old, I had to get the morning-after pill. A few days before I’d been at a party where a boy may or may not have had sex with me, and may or may not have used protection. I didn’t mention this to the pharmacist. He told me that the fact I came to see him, showed that I was sensible. I thanked him. He was very nice about the whole thing. I don’t think he meant it, though. I thought I saw judgement in the way he signed his name.
- According to the NHS website, symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include feelings of ‘despair, guilt, and worthlessness.’ In recent years, I’ve found that anything coming close to this description leads to an unrealistic self-diagnosis, which I then choose to wear like some horrendous badge of honour, allowing it to become justification for any bizarre or ridiculous behaviour I’m choosing to exhibit. It’s a habit I don’t imagine I’ll stop any time soon.
- One summer, when I was twenty-one years old, the doctors told me that I’d contracted a stomach ulcer. This led to an early termination of my work-contract and a depressing flight home. I spent the summer back in England, where I could binge-drink freely. That same summer, my friend had a nervous breakdown in Germany and was forced to return to her divorced parents’ arguments, and the expensive drinks cabinet she regularly stole from. We had a lot to bond over. In our small town we spent our time at a variety of pub quizzes. A few old friends from sixth-form still hung around so we adopted them into our miserable, trivial pursuits. Mostly we stayed in The Foresters and drank aggressively inexpensive beer. ‘It’s so nice in this pub that sometimes I feel like I’m going to cry,’ I once said. My broken-down friend responded in the kindest way she could.
- ‘You need to chill the fuck out, mate.’
- One summer, when I was eighteen years old, things were perfect. I had too much time and an exponential amount of reading. There was a huge lake near my apartment block, and I walked around it every day until I found my favourite blossom tree, a Japanese, watercolour dropped into reality. There was a beautiful cottage on the other side of the lake, and I swore to myself I would buy it whenever I had the necessary means. I’d settle down, breathe in the hot air, and read about death until I fell asleep against the bark. Sometimes, it helps to remember this.
- After I took the morning after pill, I was scared to go home. Instead, I decided to meet another boy who had expressed some interest in me. He was significantly older, and I didn’t know him well. He invited me over to his flat and I agreed. I wish I could say that I’d just been too stupid for self-preservation, but the reality is, I didn’t care enough about myself to worry.
- ‘I too wondered if the story was perhaps a shade too bleak. The arc has less suspense as we hurtle towards inevitable oblivion and the girl’s fate seems inescapable. This risks a tone of schematic hopelessness.’
- This boy was excited when he met me and I didn’t have to say much. It felt right whenever I did speak though, as though I was being thoughtful, insightful, or at least voicing something he had also thought before. I was used to speaking at boys, desperately hoping they would like me. Now I found he was speaking to me just like that, and it was easy to let him. Eventually, after we’d been walking some time, I asked him where his flat was. He told me we’d walked past it a while back, and instead we should just keep walking. It was spitting with warm rain in the way of English seaside summers, and I wondered what his angle was.
- In cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder doctors suggest a light-therapy box which can be used to simulate exposure to sunlight.  The flashing lights come in various colours, although they are often blue. While many people imagine that the sun’s light is mostly white, it actually works on a spectrum of colours, meaning that blue lights may be slightly more effective for improving the winter blues. I refused to purchase one of these light-therapy boxes, and instead maniacally clicked a laser-pointer aimed directly into my stretched-open eye like some Clockwork Orange nightmare, believing I could mind-control my way into happiness. This did not work, and considering my persistent short-sightedness I am now cynical about the possible benefits of laser-eye surgery.
- One summer, when I was twenty years old, I lived in a hotel called Mrs Panda’s waiting for my company to send me to work. There were palm trees that rained down the white walls outside, and a flea-bag, ginger cat that always wanted to be stroked. Every morning we met downstairs for cheap breakfasts and green tea. Everyone complained that this company had flown us half-way across the world and couldn’t even be arsed to find us jobs. It was nearly thirty degrees and we could sit and read, or smoke, or talk to strangers and tentatively practice the words we didn’t really know yet. If we all got bored we’d go ‘exploring,’ which mostly just meant walking and looking at things because none of us had earned any money yet. ‘You’ve been here nearly a month now, you must be going crazy,’ someone had told me, and it wasn’t a question so didn’t correct them.
- In our seaside town, the boy and I found a country lane. The rain had stopped and there was this chilly, conflicting feeling of sun on wet hair. He said we should walk down there, just to see what there was, and promised that if we didn’t like it we could always turn back. I didn’t take much convincing. He talked a lot and I didn’t. I sometimes glanced at him but mostly I just watched our tattered converse on the gravel. After a while I watched the sky. It was starting to get brighter, and I wanted to catch sight of the rainbow first.
- In The Forester’s pub quiz everyone knew each other’s team names and we always came dead last. Our group would argue over answers ferociously, and then all turn out to be wrong. The lady who ran it was called Vera. She spoke in a deep, Yorkshire accent, the type akin to childminders and dinner-ladies which immediately made me feel in the hands of someone competent. Any money raised always went to something local. ‘Prostate cancer after our Dave, who’s now in remission, thank you very much,’ and the people in the pub would all cheer that same ‘eyyyyyyyy,’ you usually only hear when it follows broken glass.
- One summer, I forget the age I was now, but it was a summer and that is certain, an old friend of mine threw a family barbeque. For some reason, I was invited. I’d hung around the house that day helping with some art-project or other, and when the time came for tea they let me stay. They were a hippy bunch who always had vegan food in the outdoor freezer. My friend’s step-dad cooked his meat on a separate side of the grill and made disparaging comments about ‘not eating that veggie junk,’ then everyone else scoffed about the primitive mentality of men. My friend rolled joints while they cooked and, actually, I must have been around seventeen, because I was old enough to smoke but young enough to be amazed that her parents did too. I had a couple of bean burgers and talked about how I loved the smell of summer. The smell of smoke and cut grass reminded me of festivals, I’d said, and my friend’s mum laughed and asked if I was sure I wasn’t thinking about the weed. I didn’t get high that night though. That night there was a sense of control. When I did the washing up I heard them saying nice things about me under their breath. For some reason, that mattered a lot to me. For some reason, it still does.
- It didn’t take too long walking down that lane, until we found a sort of tire swing, like something out of a saccharine American movie. Instead of a car tire there was just a stick, not even long enough to sit on. ‘You’re supposed to stand on it,’ he explained to me. ‘Your feet go here and your hands go in the loop.’ So I stood how he had told me to, and he pushed me on the swing. I found myself laughing, at first in an embarrassed way, before he pushed me harder and I laughed from the adrenaline. The loop started to tighten on my hands and I got stuck. I asked him to stop pushing and he listened. When he loosened the rope, he asked if I was okay, and I said I was fine, though the rope-burn on the back of my hand had caused the skin to break. Something like that would normally ruin my day. For the first time I wondered why I was always so easily upset. We kept walking.
- In reference to the sentence ‘therapy would not save her now.’ Comment, underlined. ‘Nor the writer of this story.’
- I had to move city again. The summer was ending. We drank at The Forester’s as we always did, and then to a terrible nightclub shoe-horned into our quiet, market town: one storey, pub tables, strobe lights. (Although these lights, I noticed, could also be intended to simulate exposure to sunlight, and I spent my time staring at them so intensely, I assume I resembled someone who was perhaps not in need of any extra serotonin.) Our group could only stand the place when we were already too drunk to speak. I told my broken-down friend that I had to leave soon. I was already going to be tired tomorrow for the journey. We were all so drunk and I couldn’t see straight and staying here wasn’t a good idea. She cried when I said I was leaving. ‘I don’t want it to end,’ she told me. ‘I’m not ready to go back yet. I’m gonna miss the fucking pub quizzes.’ We stayed out for another two hours, chain-smoking cigarettes and watching stars.
- ‘It made me physically shudder.’
- It turned hot so quickly that day, to the point that leather jackets were swung over arms and hoodies were tied around waists. I needed a drink, but we’d walked so far already, and soon we were under an unnecessary bridge, unnecessary because the stream that dribbled passed us was thin enough to jump over. He pulled a bottle of water from the bottom of his rucksack, handed it to me when I asked. The boy told me that he’d been adopted. He was in care all his life. The only family he’d ever known was a West-Indian couple, who ironed his clothes neatly and finally instilled some sense of discipline. They adopted him despite the care-system’s warning that trans-racial families had a more difficult time with the integration process, and he should really consider other options. He told me that hearing the social worker say that was the first time he’d ever been ashamed to be white. In the hard-core, teenage society I lived in, all stretched ears, shaved heads, and Madeline Mccan jokes, my political correctness was always taken for shrillness, irritating piousness. I can’t remember what it was I’d said but it was something radically left-wing for a sixteen year old, possible redundant for anyone his age. It didn’t seem to matter. He kissed me anyway.
- In September, when I’d just turned twenty-two, I made new friends. It was a post-grad mixer for everyone who smiled too much and was scared of getting through the next year alone. They invited me to a pub quiz. It took a lot of effort not to laugh when they did, but I managed it. ‘And what…’ the young-man spoke into a squealing microphone, ‘is the capital of Australia. I’ll say that again, what… is the capital… of Australia?’ He had biceps that were too large for his t-shirt and his beard was perfectly trimmed. I’d met this speaker before as he led a tour round my new campus. He spoke in a perfect, RP, southern accent, and said things with the deliberate intention of seeming down to earth and ‘just like us guys.’ I hated him irrationally. He had nothing on Vera. It was still warm enough that I could wear a jacket instead of a coat and I sipped my beer and listened to my new friends argue. ‘Sydney.’ ‘It’s not.’ ‘Melbourne.’ ‘No, it’s something you wouldn’t expect.’ ‘It’s Canberra,’ I’d said. Yes, they said, and wow, and how do you know so much trivia? If there’d been a camera, I would’ve stared into it and winked. I would have had the canned laughter in the background, ready to go. Instead, I jumped into an anecdote about last summer, and I didn’t care that they all seemed to lose interest.
- Sometimes, it’s enough. It’s enough just to know that the person who could have done that thing, pushed you into another spiral of self-hatred didn’t do that, didn’t even ask for it. It wouldn’t have been hard to convince me. Or maybe it would have been. I’d stopped being myself that day, turned into someone I liked much more, someone who listened rather than spoke, and who only said what they really meant if they ever did speak. I was a person with confidence who could shrug off unimportant things. Maybe that day, I’d have put up more of a fight. It doesn’t matter. I never had to find out. For me, it was enough to have a gorgeous day that stopped at a kiss. Sometimes, that’s enough.
- One February, when I was twenty-two, I woke up and the sun was shining. It was still zero degrees outside but when I looked out of the window holding my mug of tea, it felt nice, like maybe something important was going to happen. I sat down and I wrote a thing called ‘Respite,’ flipping through memories like case-files, searching for moments of bliss. It wasn’t particularly well-written, but at the time, this was enough too.
- ‘Isn’t the quality of the writing something I should decide?’
- One thing they don’t mention about Seasonal Affective Disorder, is that it’s both temporary and horrendously permanent all at the same time. Amongst all the counselling and the light-boxes, you’d think they’d mention once that if you just trudge through the sleety, greying snow, and the freezing nights in black-mould houses, then eventually you’ll get to a point in the year where you don’t have to remind yourself that you don’t want to die. Very soon there will be sunshine, blossom trees, barbeques, pub quizzes, and walks down country lanes with boys who only want to kiss you, and who you’ll never have to see again. I don’t know if this would be beneficial for an NHS website. I don’t know. I think it’s beneficial for me.
- ‘Why are you always so goddamn cynical?’
 As said by my sister, only partially in jest.
 NHS Choices. ‘Seasonal affective disorder.’ Health A-Z 01.09.2015, < https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/> [Accessed 13.03.2018]
 As said by my broken-down friend.
 As said by second marker. I sometimes wonder if she ever worries about me. Then I remember that someone sent in work detailing the explicit rape and murder of an all-female pop-group, and I realise my self-contempt is frankly uninteresting, and more importantly for a creative writing course, unoriginal.
 As a result of my unusually pessimistic outlook, I cannot recall any positive feedback directly. I remember is that I felt warm, that’s all.
 As said by a once loving partner prior to his suicide. Easy to understand now that he was not an advocate for therapy.
 As said by my friend, who now won’t proof-read for me.
 As said by this reader, hopefully.
 As said by everyone I’ve ever met to date.
You can read more of Cathleen’s writing below:
Underworld: The UEA Undergraduate Creative Writing Anthology 2014
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